This article was first published on MOMBcomics in December 2009
The news of the new Bruce Wayne story (to be released next year) caused somewhat of a stir. Enough to have us asking ourselves on this weeks MOMBcast what is the definitive Batman book? If you listened you’ll know that we (or was it me) decided that there was no “definitive” Batman book. As gateway trades Hush, Dark Knight Returns, as well as the Gotham Central Series and The Killing Joke were suggested ideal jumping on points depending on taste. Also though, we suggested Batman: Year One. While there may not be a definitive Batman Trade, there IS a definitive origin story and Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s master piece is very much it.
1986 really must have been some years to be a regular visitor to the comic book store. It must have also been a busy one for Frank Miller. After turning Daredevil into the icon he is today, he set his sights firmly onGotham’s Kight creating two of the greatest books yet written about The Batman. I love both books but The Dark Knight Returns may remain a dystopian work of genius, but it reeks of the nuclear paranoia of the Eighties. Of the two books Year One, however, remains a timeless classic, and tells the ultimate tale of how the two heroes ofGothambecame the men, and the team they remain (current status quo aside).
The tale is told in two distinct narrative threads. One is that of the newly returned playboy and stinking rich twenty something Bruce Wayne, the second is that of Lieutenant James Gordon, transferred into Gotham with a young family on the way, into the corrupt company of fellow Lieutenant Flass, part of the corrupt Gotham “law” enforcing community. Even the opening frames of this story seem to mirror their future roles and relationship. Jim Gordon travelling by train grounded in amongst the people, while Bruce Wayne flies in, like the Batman circling above the filth and the crime, swooping in to become its caped crusader.
As their tales unfold we slowly see these men develop into the characters we are familiar with. Their journeys are both tortuous.Waynemust learn the patience and craft of his hooded alter ego, whereas Gordon must face being one of the few straight cops in a deeply corrupt police department. It puts his life and marriage on the line. Both however tap the resources that we come to know them for and eventually overcome and despite the odds and as allies.
To say this book is good would be akin to saying the sea is wet. It seems to barely do it justice. I don’t think it’s too controversial to suggest that this might be Millers best work. Such dark and brooding depth in the writing though is amplified by 11 by the gritty and dark art work of Mazzucchelli who manages to make Gotham look real, but also dark, damp and menacing. The framing and “acting” of his characters are note perfect panel after panel.
This book encapsulates all that appeals to me in the mythology of Batman. Such a versatile character (in terms of story not powers!) you cannot find in comics. Daredevil maybe comes close in how grounded and human he is, but even he cannot quite match the gut wrenching nature of Bruce Wayne’s tortured victim hell bent on making sure he is the last to suffer such fate, which of course compounds the tragedy, as he faces a constant loosing battle. The star of the book however, is not the writing, not the art, certainly and not Batman, but Jim Gordon. It’s his bravery and assent to influence that allows the Batman to be, and Miller gives him a powerful and commanding voice throughout this book, as well as the stones to back that up. Both are real men, neither have superpowers, but its Gordon who has to face the world, and corrupt cops, square in the eye and take them on toe to toe. He has no mask, and that is truly brave.
So I guess maybe there really is one book you should read before you read any other Batman book. This is timeless in every sense and is the perfect origin to arguably the most perfect creation of the “Superhero” genre. Jane of the MOMBcast will no doubt be forced to read very shortly. This isn’t the story of one man; it’s the story of how a modern mythology came to be.